Seeking shelter at National Museum Kuala Lumpur
It was heavy rain that unexpectedly drove me inside Kuala Lumpur’s National Museum that day.
I walked past it, heading for the nearby Lake Gardens, totally ready to skip the museum. From the outside it looked boring and dated and the gardens appealed more to me.
But the sky turned dark grey quickly and a heavy downpour began, so I sought shelter at the museum as fast as I could. Sitting on some steps there, safe and dry, my eye fell on the building behind me.
There was a temporary exhibit going on and access was free.
Hm, that could be a good way to entertain myself while waiting for the rain to stop.
Retro Fashion Icon Saloma
‘Retro Fashion Icon: Saloma’, it said. Saloma, who is that? Never heard of her before.
I walked into the exhibition space and was pleasantly surprised.
All around the room were outfits on display, 65 in total, that once belonged to singer and actress Saloma, nicknamed (by none other than Marlon Brando): Marlilyn Monroe of the East.
The garments alone would not nearly have been as interesting on themselves as they were in the context of a bigger picture and story.
That story is the story of Saloma, which tells itself like a an equally romantic as tragic novel or movie. Not surprising that not that long ago a TV series was made about her life and marriage.
Who was Saloma?
Let me tell you a bit more about Saloma, about her life, her marriage and her fashion.
National Songbird of Malaysia
Saloma was born in Singapore in 1935. Her first performance as a singer was when she was only 13 years old. Over the years she became a popular singer and later on she added a film career to that.
She would live in Singapore and/or Malaysia at different stages in her life.
In 1978 she was declared Malaysia’s first National Songbird.
If you want to hear and see her singing, check out this video:
Saloma and P. Ramlee: celebrity power couple
At the age of 15 she went to the movies once and fell in love with the hero of that film and swore that one day she would marry him.
We all had/have our celebrity-crushes, (George Clooney, swoon….) I think, but usually it stays there; a bit of daydreaming or fantasising about a distant, unreachable person that in fact we know nothing about.
Okay, first she marries someone else, whom she divorces after only 5 months, but later she actually marries that movie star and love of her life, actor and entertainer P. Ramlee. They become a famous and popular celebrity power couple.
She is his third wife, he her second husband, and apparently they got it right this time. They were and stayed madly in love and totally devoted to each other till the end. Which comes way too soon. P. Ramlee dies at the age of 44, after which Saloma stays behind heart-broken. Ten years later she too dies, in 1983, at the age of 48 only.
Saloma was a pretty, petit lady, with a waist of just 21 inches or 53 centimeters!!! The mannequins in the exhibition had to be trimmed down in order to fit her clothes.
She usually wore her pitch black hair high up and always had cat eye make up.
Her clothes were known to be figure-hugging, like peplum kebaya tops and kebaya skirts with a ‘fan’ back for easy movement without sacrificing the slim fit.
She altered and adorned her own clothes with beads and sequins.
Saloma’s creations were trendsetting and revolutionary
‘Retro Fashion Icon‘, ‘Malay Fashion Trendsetter‘, ‘revolutionary fashion sense ahead of the times‘…., I have to admit that looking at the outfits on display (without seeing the pictures of Saloma wearing them) they don’t seem all that revolutionary or impressive to me.
Some, yes, some are really spectacular, like the white dress with the red beads, the pink one with the sequins and the blue one with the music notes. The yellow one in the picture below (far left) is pretty and glam, as is the green dress next to it.
But some look dated and cheap, probably due to the fabrics used.
When you look at the pictures of Saloma wearing these clothes, that’s when they shine. They look fabulous on her body.
So even though it may sometimes be hard to imagine, her daring sense of style WAS the talk of the town during her time. And she was widely known as a fashion icon, often dressed in reinventions of traditional Malay garments with a western twist.
So it makes perfect sense that towards the end of her life, she donated her garments to the National Archives. From which they were displayed at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur for the first time.
Unfortunately the exhibition has ended now.
I’m very happy to have stumbled upon it and really enjoyed getting to know more about Fashion Icon Saloma – Marilyn Monroe of the East.